No relationship can go on for long before the couple has to work out what to do about money. Even at the dating stage there’s that awkward moment when you first fight over the check at the restaurant. Couples didn’t use to fight over the check, the man always paid; but now the woman is almost as likely to earn more than the man as the other way around. The way that the couple resolves this problem at the dating stage may have more to do with the sustainability of their relationship than the fact that they both like the same music and long walks on the beach.
In married and living-together couples, there are three basic arrangements about how to handle money. In some cases, both partners keep the money they earn individually and divvy up the bills in some way that seems fair. In the second method, the partners put all their earnings into a big pot and pay all the bills out of that fund. Finally, there’s the hybrid arrangement of yours, mine, and ours where both partners ante up to pay most of the bills, but also keep a discretionary fund all to themselves.
It seems to me that the people who use the first method more often run into problems. It’s the most primitive arrangement, akin to a bartering system. Also, if your partner pays the light bill, you take for granted that the lights stay on and have little interest in conservation. It doesn’t lend itself to much coordination and flexibility to meet changing needs, but it is easier to pull out of a relationship when you divvy up the bills. To be fair, it’s generally the couples who have little trust in one another who gravitate towards this method. Your partner won’t run down your credit score when you don’t let her near your checkbook. Consequently, I am not sure that it’s the method that causes the problems, or that couples with problems tend to choose this method.
The second method: putting everything into a big pot, puts a lot of pressure on the person who keeps the books and requires the most coordination and trust to make it work. If you’re not the household accountant, you might not like that another person controls your money and resent having to go to her every time you need cash and justify the expenditure. If you are the accountant, not only is it a lot of work and responsibility, but you may start to feel like the only adult in the household who has a real handle on what’s going on.
Most experts believe the last method to be the best, as it combines the personal independence and responsibility of the first with the efficiency of the second. I believe any arrangement will work just as long as both partners can set a fair financial policy and be honest and consistent about the execution of that policy.